State Championship preview: Panthers v Pride
Penrith Panthers reserves v Northern Pride
Sunday October 5, 3.55pm (AEDT)
When NRL Grand Final Day consists of two Sydney-based teams squaring off against each other, interest levels north of the border have a tendency to wane slightly.
Due to the Melbourne Storm's mortgage over a grand final spot in recent years, Sunday's NRL decider marks only the third time in 10 seasons that the NRL decider will feature two clubs from Sydney.
On these particular occasions passionate Queenslanders are more likely to support the side containing their favourite player or whichever team has more banana benders on board.
However, thanks to the inaugural NRL State Championship Grand Final between the Northern Pride and the Penrith Panthers, Queensland fans have the perfect excuse to crack open a XXXX (not that one is needed) and sit down to watch some enthralling rugby league featuring the top team from the Intrust Super Cup taking on their equivalent from the NSW Cup.
Finishing the 2014 season as minor premiers, the Cairns-based club outclassed Easts Tigers in the ISC decider, running away with a 36-4 victory at Suncorp Stadium last Sunday. It was a fitting end for the Pride who had dominated the competition throughout the season, losing only four games to finish six points clear at the top of the table.
The Pride's stellar season saw five of their of number, including coach Jason Demetriou, named in the Queensland Residents side with two of those – five-eighth Shaun Nona (Storm) and back-rower Blake Leary (Sea Eagles) – earning NRL contracts as a result of their outstanding form.
Penrith were equally impressive throughout the 2014 VB NSW Cup, matching the Pride's record of 20 wins and four losses and finishing 10 points clear of fellow grand finalists Newcastle.
The Panthers crushed the Knights 48-12 in the Allianz Stadium decider last Sunday with fullback Kieran Moss bagging a hat-trick and claiming Man of the Match honours.
It's been an exciting season for the whole club as their senior side fell just one game short of making the NRL grand final. Although a fairytale showdown with the Rabbitohs wasn't to be, diehard and closet Panthers fans can now jump back aboard their bandwagon as it rolls down the M4 towards ANZ Stadium for Sunday's blockbuster.
In team changes, Demetriou has made one change from the Pride's grand final side with Joel Riethmuller suspended for one week after accepting an early guilty plea to a grade-one detrimental conduct charge. Jack Svendsen will come back into the 17 with Tom Hancock and Patrick Kaufusi named on an extended bench.
The Panthers have made a number of changes with Kevin Naiqama coming into the centres, pushing older brother Wes out to the wing in place of Tom Eisenhuth. Prop Sam Anderson comes into the starting side for Leilani Latu who drops to the bench, while back-rower Ben Murdoch-Masila comes in for Issah Yeo with coach Garth Brennan adding Andy Saunders into the 17.
Watch out Panthers: The Pride ooze quality and experience all over the park but their main strength lies with their speedy and powerful outside backs. Javid Bowen, Kyle Feldt, Brett Anderson and veteran Fijian Semi Tadulala make up the Pride's three-quarter line with Demetriou able to inject the dangerous Davin Crampton into the game at any given moment.
The Panthers may have a whole deck of NRL stars to choose from but Crampton is the Pride's ace in the hole. The versatile 25-year-old can cover a number of positions and is the club's leading try-scorer in 2014 with 17 tries, including one in the Pride's grand final win over Easts Tigers.
Normally a regular at right centre, Crampton came off the bench in the ISC decider with Kyle Feldt the preferred starter. However it didn't take long for the Normanton junior to make an instant impact when brought onto the field, bagging the Pride's third try while playing at lock where he has done so in a handful of games this season.
Watch Out Pride: The Panthers are blessed with an embarrassment of weapons right across the park but in recent weeks it's been the damaging play of undersized second-rower Vaipuna Tia Kilifi that has been integral to their recent wins. The NSW Cup champions have been slow starters in their past two games, but the headgear-wearing dynamo has provided instant impact off the bench with his fringe-running and offloads. Should Penrith fail to fire early, then the timely insertion of Tia Kilifi would give them the impetus they'll need.
Plays to watch: Not only do the Panthers need to be wary of Crampton coming off the bench, they also need to keep a watchful eye on the Pride when they attack down their potent left edge. The Pride love running the ball down the left to utilise back-rower Blake Leary, co-captain Brett Anderson and winger Javid Bowen. The trio have 32 tries between them this season and are sure to give the Panthers' right edge defence a headache while the Pride are on the attack.
For the Panthers, early ball to powerful centre Waqa Blake is key. The Israel Folau clone has as much speed as he does strength, making him an instant threat each time they head to their right edge. His combination with the team's leading try-scorer Eto Nabuli has been a reliable path to the tryline all season. If it's not in the right corridor, then the cunning dummy-half play of hooking duo Kevin Kingston and Kierran Moseley, as well as the excellent support play of fullback Kieran Moss, that has been another source of points all year.
Key Match-up: Luke Capewell v Shaun Nona
There are a number of intriguing battles due to take place on Sunday but one of the more interesting match-ups feature two players at very contrasting stages of their careers.
Despite both players only being born one year apart and hailing from country Queensland, the current career progression of Penrith five-eighth Luke Capewell and Pride counterpart Shaun Nona are poles apart.
On top of the pile you have 24-year-old Nona, who has signed with the Storm for the 2015 season and was awarded the Duncan Hall Medal for his Man of the Match performance in the ISC grand final.
At the opposite end of the spectrum lies Capewell, who has been solid but not spectacular for the Panthers' reserves this season. The 25-year-old has 40 NRL games under his belt spread between three clubs after debuting for Souths in 2008. The Charleville product is off contract and facing an uncertain future after failing to crack into Penrith's senior side during the season.
Both Nona and Capewell have plenty to prove on Sunday, although it's the Penrith pivot that has more on the line as he looks attract interest from other NRL clubs.
Where It Will Be Won: Penrith come in having won 22 of their past 24, while the Pride have won 15 of their past 17, ensuring this is a meeting of two of the hottest rugby league teams in the country. So whichever team can apply their game plan the earliest is likely to get the edge. As alluded to earlier, Penrith have been slow out of the blocks over the back end of their finals run and won't want to do it against a victorious Queensland Cup side that piled on the points after a hot start in their state decider.
Match Officials: Referee: Adam Cassidy; Touch Judges: Liam Nichols and Clayton Sharpe; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy and Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine 3.55pm (2.55pm Qld time).
The Way We See It: NSW fans have been burned too many times when overlooking a Queensland side that appear somewhat inferior on paper. But that doesn't mean we can just gloss over Penrith's 400-plus games worth of NRL experience littered across their roster. And they'll all come in good use on Sunday, in what sure to be an intense and fast-paced State Championship.
The bookies have installed the Panthers as warm favourites, but the Pride are a determined outfit and won't be swept aside that easily. The men in black can expect some healthy support from the ANZ Stadium crowd making Sunday's match a virtual home final, a factor that could prove the difference in what is sure to be close contest. Penrith by seven points.